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ADS4: Legal Fictions

Christopher Scarffe

I am a London-based designer graduating from the MA Architecture course at the RCA.

During my time at the RCA, I have developed an interest in the complex, often contradictory ways that spatial design and the built environment play a role in empowering, or indeed, disabling differently-abled minds and bodies. My interest in the intersection of disability and architecture stems from my personal experience of living with congenital upper limb impairments.

My design practice is informed by disability activism, disability theory, and the disability arts movement. Equally pivotal to my design practice is the affirmation model of disability and impairment; a model which rejects 'tragic' or 'medicalised' perceptions by actively reinforcing a positive and valid identity for differently-abled minds and bodies. I am keen to exercise my agency as a designer to challenge the way disability and impairment are perceived and responded to in the world today. 

Prior to my MA, I completed my undergraduate degree at Leeds School of Architecture. My thesis project, which questioned conventional modes of regenerating inner-city areas, was nominated for the RIBA President’s Medals and awarded an RIBA Yorkshire Student Award. Last year I studied with ADS2 - led by David Knight, Diana Ibáñez López, and Ahmed Belkhodj - and explored the politics of development and generation of new forms of architectural agency in the context of National Parks. My project, nominated for the RIBA London West Student Award, harnessed the playful exuberance of the recreational navigation endemic to the Broads National Park to generate a more contextual and engaging solution to the rising sea levels that are already consuming the park’s cherished landscape. 

I hope you find my work interesting and engaging. Please feel free to reach out if you have any feedback or thoughts you would like to share with me!

Degree Details

School of Architecture

ADS4: Legal Fictions

Despite a great deal of societal and legal progress, for those with physical, neurological, and sensory impairments, navigating the world around us is still laden with barriers. Adjustments to society’s structures and systems, such as my inclusion plan displayed below, are undoubtedly well-intentioned and work towards offering greater inclusivity and awareness of the social and spatial needs of differently-abled bodies. However, these adjustments are usually only carried out to an extent that society deems ‘reasonable’. What is defined as ‘reasonable’ is entirely open to interpretation and often governed by market-driven values. As a result, the exclusion of those that do not fit the ‘normate template’ is repeatedly justified through financial viability or historical preservation.

 

Furthermore, in a world full of ‘reasonable adjustments’, disability is still seen as an undesirable state, with disabled bodies devalued as abnormal and treated as separate to the dominant abled body. This is because while society values productivity, economic growth, and profitability above all else, disabled bodies will continue to be framed as burdensome, unproductive, and unprofitable. Additionally, our medicalised conception of disability and impairment means we respond to those with diverse social and spatial requirements with purely functional solutions that frame disability as a problem in need of a solution. It is rarely considered how this approach might (negatively) frame society’s perception of disabled individuals, and indeed, disabled individual's perception of themselves.

 

To that end, this project asks: can you imagine a version of our world where inclusion plans aren’t necessary? Where being differently-abled isn’t bad nor good, but instead, just a fact of human diversity. Where the different needs of differently-abled bodies are viewed as a design opportunity rather than a constraint. What might the infrastructural elements that make up the very fabric of our built environment look like as a result? And how might they enable a different way of moving through and experiencing the city? In such a world, spatial experience is predicated on enjoyment and the human flourishing of all members of society, rather than speed and profit-driven productivity for a select few. 

 

The primary spatial focus within the project lies in reimagining what Keller Easterling calls ‘Infrastructure Space’. These spaces and structures are often considered apolitical or not even considered at all, however, they are arguably the finest example of the dominant and singular logic within spatial design manifested. As Easterling argues, they set “the invisible rules that govern the spaces of our everyday lives, making certain things possible and other things impossible”.

 

Rather than designing a new reality where the traces of structural ableism are not present, the project utilises the cartoon landscape to radically re-imagine the structures and spaces that govern our reality. In doing so, the aim is to reveal the instrumentality of ‘infrastructure space’ in forming our perspective of difference and to encourage designers to begin to image how the world could be. In this way, dis/forming becomes a discursive act because, as Jay Dolmage argues, “we readily see the world in terms of physical space and spatial relations. Thus, spaces already convey information, and reconstructing or reimagining these spaces is a mode of argument.”

Dis/Forming Infrastructure Space

The spatial dis/formations within the project have been choreographed into a format that is inspired by the opening sequences of popular cartoons. Despite the otherworldly, surreal nature of the cartoon landscapes in the opening sequences, all embody the same dominant normativity of life within our capitalist society, through structures like the nuclear family, gender roles, and the morning commute. The opening sequence presented here subverts these notions, illustrating a journey traveled at a different pace, with no real rhyme or reason to the direction or destination. Furthermore, the designs of the infrastructural elements do not look to a faster, more productive world but one that considers the enjoyment and flourishing of all members of society equally.

W.i.P Glossary
W.i.P Glossary - Disability and Impairment

The project has entered myriad sites of contestation including language through the use of the project glossary. Perceptions and attitudes are deeply entwined with the disabled experience. Therefore, language becomes a key site of contestation. We can see how by simply removing negatively loaded words such as ‘lack’ and ‘damaged’ from our definition of disability and impairment we can begin to challenge negative perceptions. These simple changes can transform the way designers think about ‘difference’; from something to feel awkward or cautious about, to something we can talk about openly, and in doing so, recognize our fallibility.

Renaming the Design Practice: Dis/Form — As language plays such a pivotal role in our conception of disability, it was important to rename the design approach: Describing the proposals within the project as retrofits presents a contradiction in terms, as this suggests notions of fitting or plugging into the past. Dis/form, on the other hand, suggests an aggressively proactive stance to adaptation that looks forwards rather than backwards.
Diagramming Typical Design Practice — Designers must change the way they design for difference. We can no longer respond to “difference” as a supplementary category, dominated by overly functional and medicalised ‘special needs’ adaptations.
Diagramming Idealised Design Practice — Chasing the fallacy of a universal one size fits all design solution will inevitably leave someone out, and ultimately, it seeks to eliminate our differences rather than embrace them.
Diagramming Affirmative Design Practice — What if designing for difference was not considered a constraint on creativity or something to simply comply with, but as an opportunity to enrich designs and the world we live in. This design method does not focus on accommodating specific bodies or disabilities, but different methods of moving, communicating, and interacting equally.
My Inclusion Plan
The Productivity Paradigm

Well-intentioned adaptations to society's structures and systems work towards offering greater inclusivity and awareness of the social and spatial needs of differently-abled bodies. However, In a world where physical barriers have been removed disability will still be framed as burdensome, unproductive, and unprofitable by a system that places value on productivity, economic growth, and profitability. If we are to live in a world where all bodies have equal opportunities to flourish, we must also dis/form the disabling barrier that is our value system.

The Project Framework — The ADS4 brief encouraged us to leverage the unreality of the cartoon landscape to reveal new perspectives on how we might begin to respond differently to injustices which within our reality seem unsolvable. The diagram maps how this framework has been utilised to move our approach to designing for difference from the plausible and real, where it is relegated from creative and critical discourse, to the plausibly impossible surreal, where it can be challenged critically, creatively, and playfully.
- — What if pedestrian crossings were not predicated upon minimising disruptions to road traffic? Where crossing times are designed to be as short as possible, often at the expense of less mobile bodies.
- — What if, instead, the pedestrian was prioritised by utilising the multiverse of bodily movement to generate an inclusive method of road crossing that can be enjoyed by everyone.
- — What if motorways were not designed to facilitate the movement of bodies as quickly and efficiently as possible?
- — But instead, focused on facilitating movement through urban space where the journey is not point A to point B, but an experience to be enjoyed in and of itself. Roads to nowhere encourage playful detours, a scenic route of sorts, with interactive disruptions encouraging movement at a different, slower pace.
- — What if streetlights were not designed and located to light pathways decided for us. Often prioritising areas of capital accumulation and higher property values.
- — What if streetlights placed the power into the individual’s hands to light their own way? Allowing people to take the light along their chosen path.
- — What if streetlights were not designed and located to light pathways decided for us. Often prioritising areas of capital accumulation and higher property values.
- — What if streetlights placed the power into the individual’s hands to light their own way? Allowing people to take the light along their chosen path.
- — The miniaturisation and proliferation of banking through the ATM permitted the provision of 24/7 financial services. The ATMs positioning in high traffic areas reflects the speed and efficiency expected in the transfer of money and consumption of goods.
- — So, what if we took this concept to create an anti-capitalist service like a library of things? The loan system would encourage decreased individual consumption, and moreover, make innumerable products financially and physically accessible to a greater number of people.
- — What if the designs of lifts weren’t centered on the efficiency of space and vertical movement?
- — But instead, centered on enjoyment and openness by offering a multiverse of inputs and controls for all expressions of movement.
- — The frameworks that govern how we compose vertical circulation position the differing needs of less mobile bodies as a burden on spatial efficiency and aesthetics and overlook the experiential aspects of this reality.
- — But What if those needs were viewed as an opportunity to enrich the design and experience of moving through vertical space for all bodies, equally.

It is important to state that the dis/formations presented here are not an exhaustive list but represents a starting point to begin challenging how we design for difference and to open our eyes to how the world could be.

The value of the cartoon landscape in revealing new perspectives for designing differently has undoubtedly been confirmed within the project. Therefore, I have started to take the first steps to bring the cartoon landscape into our reality, making contact with various manufacturers, building control officers, and designers with a range of expertise from lighting to inflatables to see how I can make some of these plausibly impossible designs a reality.